Skin deep

One notable thing about the 2010s is how many popular concepts from the 20th century are getting a revival. Some of those popular things are bad, like measles and Nazism. Others are good, like D&D and audio drama.

Let’s focus on the good for the moment. It’s a great time for RPG actual play podcasts, also known as ‘let’s listen to total strangers playing D&D for two hours as if that’s somehow entertaining rather than torturous’.

1000% accurate depiction of ‘Critical Role’

I kid, I kid. I used to think listening to other people roleplay was incomprehensible, but now an embarrassingly large proportion of my podcast playlist is taken up with AP ‘casts. They’re a good way to learn how other players/GMs approach games, after all – and god help me, the best of them are entertaining.

(The worst… look, it’s real easy to unsubscribe to a bad podcast 2 minutes after starting it.)

The successful ‘casts also have big fan followings – again, a concept none of us thought was possible or sane back in the day. The people, they LOVE listening to the D&D. They tweet about it. They tumble it. They patron it.

Anyway, if you check out social media activity around AP casts, or indeed any other form of audio drama/comedy/etc., the number one thing that comes through is that listeners, desperately, desperately want to know what these characters look like.

And that baffles me.

The thing I find least interesting, the thing I skip over in any book, the fast-forward-or-fuck-it-delete-the-whole-thing trigger in any audio medium… it’s what people look like. It’s descriptions of clothing. Of facial features. Of ohfuckmedead hair colour. Tell me about the character’s ringlets and freckles and I’m putting down the book/’cast in favour of strong drink.

Look, I get it. I know I’m wrong. I’m the weird one here. It’s utterly natural for human beings, a species that (mostly) uses sight as their primary way of perceiving all of existence, to want that sense reflected in their fiction.

But fuuuuuuuuuck it bores me.

I blame Raymond Chandler, as I often do. He taught me that you could describe characters through metaphor and simile without ever specifying what colour pants they were wearing. Consider lines like:

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

She had eyes like strange sins.

(Yes, I know Chandler described people more thoroughly at other times, and even what they were wearing. Don’t blow up my spot, I’m on a roll.)

I read lines like that at an impressionable age, too young or dumb to register Chandler’s misanthropy, misogyny, homophobia or general shittiness as a person, and they stuck with me. To the point where I struggle to engage with any prose or audio that takes the time to spell out all the details, and to where I look at fanart and clamourings for ‘official’ artwork of podcast characters as some kind of missive from an alternate reality that I would prefer not to visit, thank you.

The principle holds true in my writing. The best description I ever wrote of a character was ‘He had a face like a stab’. That suggests not only what the character looks like (sort of), it speaks to his personality and attitude – and to the personality and thought processes of the narrator that described him.

(I abandoned the project that included that description. But I swear I’ll use it again someday.)

But here’s the thing, and the reason why this is a blog post rather than a grumpy tweet – I realise this might be a problem. That readers – the readers I want to obtain and retain – like knowing what people look like. Especially in YA fiction, which I have decided to keep plugging away at like a punch-drunk bantamweight too concussed to know when to quit.

(Hmm. Might keep that Chandlerism too.)

So with Raven’s Blood, I started working on describing characters more. I’m not sure I succeeded. But as I start planning the next, hopefully final revision pass through that MS in a hope of finding it a home, and indeed to start writing the next novel, descriptions – of characters, clothing, places – are something I’m trying to focus on. And to find some middle ground between a five-word simile and a page-long then I looked in the mirror and listed all of my cute identifying traits monologue. Surely I can manage that.

(As for The Obituarist series… Kendall Barber’s skinny, bald and missing some fingers. And honestly I’m not sure he’s that skinny any more, 5-6 years on. I couldn’t tell you any more than that, and I hope you don’t ask.)

So that’s where my head is right now. Chime in with a comment if you’re so inclined. How important are visual descriptions or depictions to you? Do you feel the need to imagine what characters look like? And what kind of descriptive shorthand (if any) works for you?

BORING PRODUCTIVITY UPDATE: We moved house in the long gap between this post and the last, and I took a lot of concentration-destroying painkillers to cope with a knee injury.

But now we’re settled, I’m (mostly) off the drugs and walking straight, and I’m past the halfway mark on The Obituarist III. Which is proving to have a remarkable number of scenes in which Kendall is just wandering around without pants on.

Don’t blame me. I’m just a vessel for his truth.

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